The talks are intended to establish the legal conditions under which U.S. troops will remain in Iraq after their UN mandate expires at the end this year.
Not a great deal is known publicly about the details of the negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Washington and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. That is because both sides are keeping their negotiating stances secret -- precisely to avoid the slowdown of a larger public debate.
But the strategy is producing unintended consequences. In the absence of information, Iraq's fractious politicians have become the public's main source for information about the deal and the tension level is rising steadily.
"We have found a formulation marked by arrogance, dictates, and coercion toward the Iraqi side," Husayn al-Falluji, a leading member of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, told Radio Free Iraq on June 11.
"If we have to choose between this agreement and Iraq remaining internationalized under Chapter 7 [of the UN Charter], we are for keeping Iraq at the mercy of Chapter 7 rather than the mercy of a U.S. presence entailing a more uncertain future than at present," al-Falluji added.
Some politicians have gone further, saying Baghdad has put forward its own terms in an apparent showdown with Washington:
"There are in fact two drafts on the table, one presented by the American negotiators and the other from their Iraqi counterparts," Hassan al-Sinaid, a member of the parliament's Security and Defense Committee, told Radio Free Iraq earlier this week.
"The U.S. draft contains extensive, open-ended powers to be enjoyed by the U.S. forces in terms of strength, movement, and tasks," he said. "That is why the Iraqi delegation has rejected these provisions in their entirety as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty."
Often, the debate over the SOFA has the air of a virtual reality, because there is no way to independently verify what is actually being negotiated. On the one hand, there are reported leaks from Iraqi officials and party leaders. On the other hand, there are statements from Washington and Baghdad that all that is under discussion is proposals, with nothing fixed yet.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has dismissed much of what Iraqi politicians say is being discussed, yet added no details of his own.
"This furor that has been kicked up [about the agreement] is politically motivated," Zebari told Radio Free Iraq recently. "It is political posturing because we have made it clear from the beginning that there will be no secret provisions or attachments. When we have an agreement it will be submitted to parliament, to the representatives of the people for approval."
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh has also sought to calm tensions. "Nothing has been finalized," he said on June 11. "It takes time for ideas to mature and converge. The Iraqi delegation is committed to safeguarding Iraq's sovereignty in every step and in all talks."Terms Of Agreement
The SOFA is widely reported to contain the following terms: The United States wants to maintain 58 long-term bases in Iraq after the UN mandate for international forces expires at the end of this year.
Iraqi officials say Washington also wants the U.S. troops to be able to continue hunting down and engaging enemy combatants without prior approval from Baghdad.
And Iraqi officials say Washington wants authority to detain and hold Iraqis without turning them over to the Iraqi judicial system and wants immunity from Iraqi prosecution for both U.S. troops and private security contractors.
Satterfield said he was confident an agreement can be reached in time (epa)
Finally, Washington is also reported to want continued control over Iraq's airspace, including the right to refuel planes in the air.
Washington has not commented on these reported terms. U.S. President George W. Bush has only said the agreement contains what is necessary to guarantee Iraq's security and stability.
"I strongly support the agreement because I think it helps send a clear message to the people of Iraq that security they're now seeing will continue," Bush told reporters in Germany on June 11.
"And one of the lessons of Iraq is that in order for a democracy to develop, in order for an economy to develop, there has to be a measure of security, which is now happening," he added. "So, I think we'll get the agreement done. And as I said clearly in past speeches, this will not involve permanent bases, nor will it bind any future president to troop levels."
Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki agreed in November last year on the need for providing a legal basis for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq to defend it against threats and encourage foreign investment to support reconstruction. Washington set a goal for completing the deal by the end of July.
But as the debate among Iraqi politicians grows, it's becoming increasingly unclear whether the SOFA -- at least in its reported terms -- could gain parliamentary approval.
The difficultly of trying to predict passage was further complicated this week by some Iraqi lawmakers saying on that the United States has submitted new proposals to soften Iraqi opposition.
The U.S. State Department's top adviser for Iraq, David Satterfield, did not comment on the talks' progress as he visited Baghdad on June 10. However, he said Washington is confident an agreement "can be achieved, and by the end-of-July deadline," and that "we want to see Iraqi sovereignty strengthened, not weakened."
The United States has more than 80 bilateral agreements in countries where U.S. forces are stationed. But the SOFA negotiations with Iraq are particularly complex because the U.S. forces are engaged in combat in the country and are supplemented in security efforts by tens of thousands of private contractors.
The negotiations are also complicated by Iran's fierce opposition to any deal. Tehran, which has strong ties with Iraq's ruling Shi'ite political parties, has accused Washington of seeking a base in Iraq for attacking Iran. Washington denies any such intention.
In an effort to learn more about the usual terms for SOFAs, a delegation of Iraqi parliamentarians is now on a fact-finding trip to some of the other countries with which Washington has such accords. The delegation is due back in Iraq this week.
The coming days will tell whether this and other efforts to bridge the reported differences between the U.S. and Iraqi positions bear fruit.
If they do not, the fallback position is one that has little appeal for either Washington or Baghdad. That is to extend the UN mandate on Iraq in order to gain the time to try to negotiate a SOFA anew next year.